Justin Locke

Trust (and mistrust) management

What CPAs can do about trust violations.

August 6, 2012
By Justin Locke

Trust is a powerful human emotion. Trust is particularly important to the work of a CPA because the entire monetary system is based on trust. After all, without trust, there would be no checks, no credit cards, and no loans. Even cash would be suspect.

But while trust is a powerful emotion, mistrust is just as mighty. The feeling of mistrust is so strong that it easily can overwhelm logical thought. To illustrate, here is a personal story of mistrust:

Some years ago, I was doing a presentation in a rented church hall in Iowa. As usual, I had a box of my books with me. I left the books in the lobby while we did sound checks. When I came back out, I found that someone had stolen a book from me … at a church, in Iowa.

Even though I have sold thousands of books to just as many honest people, I don’t remember most of those positive individual transactions. But I have never forgotten that one violation of trust.

Memories of trust violations can linger for decades. And they can accumulate, turning into general mistrust. It may not matter how trustworthy you are—a client may not trust you simply because he or she is struggling with past trust issues, and that can make things difficult. What can you do?

A common approach is to attack the resistance with logical arguments. When people do not respond to such things, your argument, good as it is, has not addressed the underlying problem. It may have made it worse because now your client feels even more foolish.

In this case, the problem is not the merit of your logic. The problem is that past trust violations have frozen your client in fear. Suppose that client was burned the last time he or she trusted someone, and then you come along and ask him or her to trust someone again. From the client’s perspective, your “logical” argument is irrational.

When people act irrationally, chances are a past unresolved trust violation is at work. So along with making the logical argument, when dealing with the emotion of mistrust, you may also try to address the underlying trust violations that are its direct cause.

You may have clients whose past experiences have affected their entire approach to life and money. They may have an irrational fear of losing their money, or maybe they are just afraid of spending, borrowing, or loaning it. If you have a client with mistrust issues, instead of emphasizing your proposal, do some listening:

  • Ask about past trust violations;
  • Be sympathetic;
  • Let the client vent;
  • Tell the client a story of something worse happening to you. This is not “expert advice,” it is permission to delicately pursue a new angle; and
  • Use your best judgment.

Mistrust energy is powerful stuff, and this is why most people just run away from it.

Many people are ashamed to admit that past trust violations are the real problem, or they may not even be conscious of it. Bringing past trust issues to a conscious level allows you to separate the issues at hand from past traumas and lets you get back to a calm, logical discussion of the best way to manage resources here and now.

It is important to listen to your clients, and a big part of listening is giving people permission to talk about things that they are uncomfortable talking about or ashamed of. It may sound like a lot of work, but by dealing with these underlying fundamentals of emotional energy directly at their source, you ultimately are more efficient, and you actually make your life easier over the long run.

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Justin Locke is the author of Principles of Applied Stupidity and Real Men Don’t Rehearse and appeared on authors@google. His latest book, Getting in Touch With Your Inner Rich Kid (The Not-So-Rich Kid’s Guide to the Emotions of Money and Wealth) is available in print and Kindle editions. To find out more, visit his website.